History will be made on Tuesday -- and on the biggest stage in Europe -- when American Jesse Marsch becomes the first American coach to manage a team in the Champions League. The 45-year-old Wisconsin native, who coached the New York Red Bulls from 2015-18, will lead Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg into the group stage when his team faces Genk of Belgium.
This is Marsch's first season at the helm after being an assistant at RB Leipzig following his spell in MLS. He has his club off to an unbelievable start in the Austrian Bundesliga, with a perfect 7-0-0 record with 34 goals scored -- 18 more than any other team and now ready for the grandest European stage. Averaging just under five goals a game thus far, he's been more focused on continuing this fine form than making history as he will on Tuesday.
"Honestly, I haven't focused on it too much," Marsch told CBS Sports. "To be honest, when somebody first said it to me, I wasn't even sure if it was true."
But it is, and he's ready.
He'll have his squad ready as well.
Marsch is excited for his team to be tested, and tested it will be against the best team in Europe and another team that has what it takes to make it deep. His squad is joined in Group E by reigning champs Liverpool and dark horse Napoli.
"My focus has really been on this team and preparing this group to play. It's been more about our preparation," Marsch said.
"Next to the World Cup, it's the biggest tournament in the world. The opportunity to be part of it, that's the biggest thing.
"My daily work is about trying to learn and be the best version of myself. It's how I coach, it's how I lead, it's how I teach. I think that is why I try to take every experience I have and add it to who I am and what I try to do. Specifically, tactically with the way we have played in New York, Leipzig or Salzburg, I've always tried to evolve and be innovative as to how we could be good."
🗣️ Jesse #Marsch: It was a good match. Our players give their all the whole time and are always prepared for that. It was a good preparation for Genk. We have no time to congratulate ourselves. Now we need to switch our focus onto Tuesday. #RBSHTB pic.twitter.com/RVCR0ti55G— FC Red Bull Salzburg EN (@FCRBS_en) September 14, 2019
Young and hungry
His squad is a youthful one but with plenty of talent that could be playing in the top leagues in Europe. Antoine Bernede is a rising young star in the midfield, and the Frenchman plays well beyond his 20 years of age. And remember that wild story in May where a Norwegian scored nine goals against Honduras in the U-20 World Cup? That was Erlin Haland, his striker.
While the competition of the Austrian first division isn't at the level of the top leagues in Europe, he wanted to make sure his team was tested entering the season in preparation for matches against Europe's biggest clubs. That's why they scheduled preseason friendlies with Chelsea and Real Madrid.
"The whole purpose to playing those two games was to give our guys a taste of what it is like to line up against the biggest and best players in the world," Marsch said.
A 5-3 loss to Chelsea and 1-0 loss to Real Madrid were hardly embarrassing results. His team showed it can compete against two giants and learned that small mistakes against those big teams can really cost you.
"I think we will wind up using that experience in a way that it was essential and invaluable," Marsch said.
Gameplan won't change against European giants
Getting Liverpool and Napoli is quite the difficult draw, but Marsch doesn't care. He embraces it. He knows he's going up against two teams that regularly score three goals a game, but that's not going to change how his team plays.
"They are each a little different. Liverpool is the biggest team in the world right now," Marsch said. "They are defending champions, I think they are the best team in the world. When you look at them, I've watched them from afar, it's fun to watch the way they play. When you strategically look at playing against them, they really have no weakness. So preparation for what that game will require is very tough ... Napoli, this club had played last season and had success against. With that team, they've gotten better over the past year.
"When you look at the way we play, we are aggressive by nature. We aren't going into any game and think it is time to defend. We will impose our way and impose our will."
It's not a dream
With trips to Anfield and San Paolo on the docket, Marsch is looking forward to every test his team gets in Europe and how it can foster the growth of his players. He's also completely prepared for a moment of emotion, a moment where he'll have goosebumps on his skin as he looks to the opposite bench and sees the face of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp or Napoli's legendary manager Carlo Ancelotti -- both Champions League winners.
"For sure on the day I'll be focused on trying to win, but I also know sitting at Anfield for kickoff, in Liverpool against Jurgen Klopp and that team, it will be pretty amazing," Marsch said.
Marsch credits much of his success to his protege Bob Bradley, the LAFC coach and former U.S. men's national team manager, who he's been connected to for decades.
"He was the first one who introduced what high level football was to me," Marsch said. "That happened even at Princeton University. He always had a very sharp way of pushing a group every day to be the best. I have taken a lot of those lessons and building blocks, and that's the foundation for how I do things. Over the years, we differ in our personality and in our playing philosophy, but the core of it is being a teacher and how to help your group get better every day."
For those players that have played under Marsch, they credit him with enhancing their outlook on what's important and a level of commitment that is demanding but breeds success.
"Jesse has qualities that not many people have, let alone coaches," U.S. men's national team rising star Tyler Adams told CBS Sports.
Adams was coached by Marsch in New York and as well as with RB Leipzig, his current team and fellow Champions League participant.
"He created an environment that every player wants to be a part of. Detail-oriented systems that's allow each player to grow each and every day," Adams said. "Creating the type of relationship we did from being a 16-year-old kid to a 20-year-old man, he has helped me grow up off the pitch just as much as on it. Watching him in the Champions League is very exciting. I am sure he doesn't take notice of being the first to accomplish something, but to watch him succeed is what I'll always be rooting for."
Aiming for the mountain top
Reaching the Champions League is a privilege teams have to earn by winning the tournament, the Europa League, or as is the case for most, qualifying through their domestic league or playoffs. But Marsch won't be content with just being there and enjoying the ride. Navigating Red Bull Salzburg through such a tricky group, his team isn't expected to finish in the top two and move on from those on the outside. Realistically, it seems as if his team will have a good shot to finish in third and make it to the Europa League. Don't tell him that.
"My aim is to win the tournament," Marsch said with confidence. "For me, I've talked to our team about how we can impact success by our daily work.
"This team has had incredible development. We are young, we are talented, we are athletic. We can be big achievers this season, but we will take it day by day and game by game."
Each game he's coached has led him to this -- the brink of history. An American coaching pioneer who wants more. Don't get me wrong -- he's fine with being the first American to coach in the Champions League.
But what he really wants is to be the first American coach to win the Champions League.